For the past five years Angela Merkel has been lauded the most powerful woman in Europe. Today (25 August) her influence has seen her top Forbes' World's Most Powerful Women list.
This political record breaker, the first ever female German Chancellor, has overseen Europe’s largest economy since 2005, and has been credited with competently steering the country out of recession. She even has her own official Mattel-designed, trouser-suited Barbie. Her achievements present one question: how is it we know so little about her in the UK? Stylist asked The Times’ former German correspondent Anne McElvoy for the compelling story behind the woman.
I first encountered Angela Merkel when I was the Eastern European correspondent for The Times, watching the tumultuous events of 1989 unfold in Berlin. Merkel was a spokesperson for one of the many small umbrella groups of protesters and I remember her as a serious young woman. She was actually in her mid-30s then, yet looked fresh-faced and much younger.
The following year, when the conservative Christian Democrats triumphed in the first free elections in spring 1990, she was appointed deputy press spokesperson for the first (and last) freely elected East German government. It wasn’t a glorious role at all – the press conference was fronted by her boss and Merkel was just another conduit of information for journalists in a hurry. She was also widely mocked by her peers, pegged a “milkmaid” on account of having spent the first 35 years of her life living in the old communist East Germany, with a provincial accent to prove it. But behind the scenes, Merkel shone.
Lothar de Maizière, former German prime minister and now a senior lawyer in Berlin, was particularly impressed by Merkel, telling me, “She had something that stood out, even above those senior to her. She was so precise, with a fantastic analytical capability and an eye for detail. She’d bring in the main international papers, all marked up and say, ‘That’s the significant story’ or ‘This is what you should read’ and she was usually right.”
Born for Politics
Merkel’s analytical background was the result of a strict academic upbringing. Her father was a clergyman in the East German provinces and Merkel was a serious child. She stood out at arithmetic, winning a medal at the “maths Olympics” held to promote the brightest children in the Eastern Bloc. After school she studied at Leipzig, one of the top universities in the East and went on to become a research scientist before moving into politics.
Shortly after being appointed deputy press spokesperson, Merkel was made the Women and Families Minister for the conservative Christian Democrats and was taken under the wing of then German chancellor Helmut Kohl. He often referred to her as mein mädchen (“my girl”).
Yet when Kohl ran into trouble with a major funding scandal in 1998, which would later end his career, Merkel shirked loyalty to her boss and was one of the first of his allies to call for a “new beginning”. Ever ambitious, Merkel planned to run for the chancellorship in 2002 but was out-manoeuvred by a rival. Undeterred, by 2005 she’d seized the nomination and serious power was within her grasp. Her first election was a touch-and-go affair – Merkel’s policies included market reforms in health, a move towards workfare and a hike in VAT to cut labour costs. The Social Democrats appeared to have won but it was Merkel who captured voters’ hearts on the night of the count. When her bullish rival Gerhard Schröder declared himself the winner before all the votes were cast and said Merkel’s claim to victory was “arrogant”, it led to public opinion swinging her way. Out of a messy election result, came the ‘grand coalition’ of major parties – with Merkel, Germany’s first woman leader, at its helm.
"She is, in many ways, the perfect leader for these tough times."
Suddenly, the most powerful person in Germany was a woman. Days later one of the biggest papers in Germany, Bild-Zeitung, declared, “Where is Merkel’s man?” But her husband, Joachim Sauer, one of Germany’s most eminent quantum chemists (he narrowly missed the Nobel Prize recently) had decided his place was not in the spotlight. In fact, he has kept a low profile ever since, famously refusing to attend her inauguration as Chancellor because he was working at his laboratory at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He has, however, been a strong support to her during a leadership that has lasted longer than many expected.
But then Merkel has always been in it for the long-haul. Frederick Studemann, analysis editor of the Financial Times, who has worked as a correspondent in Germany says, “She knows how to play the longer game – waiting for rivals and opponents to trip themselves up. Part of this is undoubtedly her own character, the fabled unflashy, down-to-earth northerner and cool-headed scientist who thinks things through and only then acts – an image that she also exploits to its full advantage in presenting herself as an honest, unspun politician.”
However, Merkel is not a woman to be underestimated. She wouldn’t have reached her position if she had been. “Merkel is much more ruthless than her image suggests,” says Studemann. “Her path to the top is littered with the bodies of rivals – including those who were once her patrons. She’s also prepared to use her femininity, to a degree. She loves to show up and embarrass macho men and can occasionally deploy some very eye-catching evening dress numbers.”
The biggest challenge for any country leader has to be a recession, and the latest one was more testing than most. Yet Merkel has been credited with steering a steady course for Germany throughout and bringing the country out of recession earlier than predicted. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. She recently courted controversy by declaring that the multicultural experiment in Germany had “utterly failed” and that immigrants would need to do more to integrate – including learning German. And after backing German participation in the war in Afghanistan, she was eventually forced to order a massive reduction in overseas troops to take the edge off a burgeoning domestic row about the scale of German entanglements abroad.
So what’s the secret of Merkel’s success? Well, she is, in many ways, the perfect leader for these tough times. Even after a second election victory [German elections run every four years], her down-to-earth style has remained intact and she admits she still stockpiles food and cleaning products, a habit formed during her years living in communist East Germany. Visitors to her office can often find the most powerful woman in Europe uncustomarily serving the coffee or tea. When more economically experienced colleagues patronised her by suggesting she couldn’t know much of the market economy, she told them that she knew better than they did about free-market capitalism – because she had been denied it for so long. “There is an intellectual self-confidence in her that is unshakeable,” says German commentator Hans-Ulrich Jörges.
As political writer Sonia Purnell says, “While Thatcher always felt and sounded like a pioneer woman politician, Merkel has perhaps made the idea of a woman leading her country feel normal. Maybe it will prove easier for there to be another female Chancellor in Germany than it has proven possible for a woman Prime Minister here.” It seems the last laugh is on the milkmaid – Europe’s premier Powerfrau.
Words: Anne McElvoy. Picture credits: Rex Features